Forget policy, watch the weather

Four alternative factors that could decide the election.

Over the next few weeks activists, politicians and commentators will argue and fight over campaign strategies to bring down their ideological opponents. Campaigns will issue press releases at a furious rate and triumphantly claim that they are going to "expose" their opponents on particular issues.

And it won't make much difference at all. Elections are rarely about policies; they are always more about politicians who can capture "the mood" of the electorate. David Cameron thought he had it in the bag until Nick Clegg became the "change candidate". Now it's all shot to hell.

The election is generating so much noise that arguments over policy aren't going to shift anything. People will just tune out. Here are some alternative factors that could influence polls by about 3 per cent to 5 per cent.

The one issue

Want to take out your opponent? Drop the range of topics and fixate on one issue. Keep on hammering at it so the message gets through and raises doubts in the minds of people likely to vote for them.

The noise level makes it impossible for a campaign with mixed and numerous messages to get something across. Ideally that one issue should be about policy, but subconsciously frames your opponent in an emotional way. Attacking the Tories on inheritance tax, for example, also frames them as a party only for the rich. The Tories still have problems convincing voters that they're not just for the privileged.

Brown has stuck stubbornly to talking about the economy, while Clegg will stick to talking about "a new politics". Cameron has the problem of mixed messages: "big society" doesn't resonate; he needs to attack Clegg but can't afford to sound too negative; Osborne isn't helping much.

The turnout

This will affect each party differently, and may even depend on the weather. A low turnout is bad for Labour because it mostly features the committed/angry voters who want to get rid of the incumbent.

Besides, poorer people are less likely to turn out to vote. So, good weather with a close, competitive election could ensure a high turnout -- which would be in Labour's favour. Pollsters agree.

What also matters is where the turnout happens. Both Labour and the Tories have constituencies that are so sewn up that a high turnout there would count for little. They all need a higher turnout in the marginals. However, if it becomes a very close election, then the popular vote may also become psychologically important.

The youth vote

This needs a separate category, for several reasons. The "yoof vote" is the main driver behind Clegg's recent resurgence and this bodes well for the future of the party. Young people are also better as activists.

Here's the problem for Clegg: the polls may be overstating and/or understating his popularity. Understating it, because many young people today live in mobile-only households (now 13 per cent of UK households) and are therefore not reached by conventional, phone-based pollsters. So support for the Lib Dem leader may be higher than imagined.

But Clegg's influence may be overstated if those youths don't go out and vote, as they are not prone to do.

GOTV

Which brings me to probably the biggest factor: Get-Out-The-Vote operations will probably affect final counts more than arguments over policy.

A huge part of the Obama campaign was about collecting, harvesting and refining voter data so that on election day the Democrats could locate where his supporters were, knock on their door and harangue them to go out and vote. Everything boiled down to the huge GOTV operation.

In the UK, parties can't pay to drive the old and the lazy to the polls, so the problem is bigger. But the parties do have electoral register information to locate friendly areas. The big parties have also spent large sums developing sophisticated databases to collate and track voter information. If they don't use this properly for a GOTV drive on election day, all that discussion about policy will have been for nothing.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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The Tory-DUP deal has left Scotland and Wales seething

It is quite something to threaten the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act.

Politics in the UK is rarely quite this crude, or this blatant. The deal agreed between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has – finally – been delivered. But both the deal and much of the opposition to it come with barely even the pretence of principled behaviour.

The Conservatives are looking to shore up their parliamentary and broader political position after a nightmare month. The DUP deal gives the Tories some parliamentary security, and some political breathing space. It is not yet clear what they as a party will do with this – whether, for instance, there will be an attempt to seek new leadership for the party now that the immediate parliamentary position has been secured.

But while some stability has been achieved, the deal does not provide the Tories with much additional strength. Indeed, the DUP deal emphasises their weakness. To finalise the agreement the government has had to throw money at Northern Ireland and align with a deeply socially conservative political force. At a stroke, the last of what remained of the entire Cameron project – the Conservative’s rebuilt reputation as the better party for the economy and fiscal stability, and their development as a much more socially inclusive and liberal party – has been thrown overboard.

Read more: Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

For the DUP, the reasoning behind the deal is as obvious as it is for the Conservatives. The DUP has maximised the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic gives it. As a socially conservative and unionist party, it has absolutely no wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. But it has kept the Conservatives waiting, and used the current position to get as good a deal as possible. Why should we expect it to do anything else? Still, it is hardly seemly for votes to be bought quite so blatantly.

The politics behind much of the criticism of the deal has been equally obvious. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones – representing not only the Labour party, but also a nation whose relative needs are at least as great as those of the six counties – abandoned his normally restrained tone to describe the deal as a "bung" for Northern Ireland. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also sharply critical of the deal’s lack of concern for financial fairness across the UK. In doing so, she rather blithely ignored the fact that the Barnett Formula, out of which Scotland has long done rather well, never had much to do with fairness anyway. But we could hardly expect the Scottish National Party First Minister to do anything but criticise both the Conservatives and the current functioning of the UK.

Beyond the depressingly predictable short-term politics, the long-term consequences of the Tory-DUP deal are much less foreseeable. It is quite something to threaten the integrity of the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act. Perhaps everything will work out OK. But it is concerning that, for the current government, short-term political survival appears all-important, even at potential cost to the long-term stability and integrity of the state.

But one thing is clear. The political unity of the UK is breaking down. British party politics is in retreat, possibly even existential decay. This not to say that political parties as a whole are in decline. But the political ties that bind across the UK are.

The DUP deal comes after the second general election in a row where four different parties have come first in the four nations of the UK, something which had never happened before 2015. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 election was one where the campaigns across the four nations were perhaps less connected than ever before.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s party and electoral politics have long been largely separate from those on the mainland. But Ulster Unionist MPs long took the Tory whip at Westminster. Even after that practice ceased in the 1970s, some vestigial links between the parties remained, while there were also loose ties between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Labour. But in 2017, both these Northern Irish parties had their last Commons representation eliminated.

In Scotland, 2017 saw the SNP lose some ground; the main unionist parties are, it seems, back in the game. But even to stage their partial comeback, the unionist parties had to fight – albeit with some success – on the SNP’s turf, focusing the general election campaign in Scotland heavily around the issue of a potential second independence referendum.

Even in Wales, Labour’s 26th successive general election victory was achieved in a very different way to the previous 25. The party campaigned almost exclusively as Welsh Labour. The main face and voice of the campaign was Carwyn Jones, with Jeremy Corbyn almost invisible in official campaign materials. Immediately post-election, Conservatives responded to their failure by calling for the creation of a clear Welsh Conservative leader.

Read more: Did Carwyn Jones win Wales for Labour  - or Jeremy Corbyn?

Yet these four increasingly separate political arenas still exist within one state. The UK was always an odd entity: what James Mitchell astutely termed a "state of unions", with the minority nations grafted on in distinct and even contradictory ways to the English core. The politics of the four nations are drifting apart, yet circumstances will still sometimes mean that they have to intersect. In the current instance, the parliamentary arithmetic means the Tories having to work with a party that celebrates a form of "Britishness" viewed increasingly with baffled incomprehension, if not outright revulsion, by the majority of Conservatives, even, on the British mainland. In turn, the Tories and other parties, as well as the news-media, are having to deal with sudden relevance of a party whose concerns and traditions they understand very little of.

Expect more of this incomprehension, not less, in the post-2017 general election world. 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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